Born on October 30, 1829 in Salem, Massachusetts to Sara Ellen Derby and John Rogers, John Rogers, Jr. grew up in Cincinnati and rural Northampton, MA before the Rogers family moved to Roxbury, where he attended grammar school. In 1844 he entered the Boston English High School where he developed an interest and talent in drawing. However, as the descendent of a long lineage of Puritan ministers and merchants, pressure from his father and uncle led him to start a more practical career. After graduation in 1846, John Rogers, Jr. began work as a dry goods clerk in Boston and in 1848 took a position as a surveyor's assistant with the Boston Water Works, on the recommendation of his uncle Henry Bromfield Rogers, a Water Commissioner.
In December of 1848 John Rogers, Jr. suffered from a terrible cold and acute inflammation of the eyes that forced him to leave his job and seek treatment. He would make trips to Boston for entertainment, and there met a friend who first introduced him to clay modeling. While his eye-sight was so drastically impaired, Rogers turned to modeling for enjoyment. With little improvement in his eyes by July of 1849, his Grandmother Derby and uncle Henry Rogers sent him on a trip to Spain, where he spent more time sketching sights than recovering.
By July 1850 John Rogers, Jr. was well enough again to take a new position in a machine shop for the Amoskeag Corporation in Manchester, New Hampshire, where he worked until the fall of 1852. Then he moved to New York City to work at the Novelty Iron Works for a year before returning to his position in Manchester. By the winter of 1855-56, Rogers had become a Master Mechanic at the Amoskeag Machine Shop, and in April 1856 decided to move to Hannibal, Missouri to take a position as the Master Mechanic of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Rail Road. However, this job ended abruptly only a year and a half later during the Panic of 1857.
Throughout his years in the machinist trade, Rogers had continued to sculpt clay models and had created a number of small works. The sudden interruption of his career in 1857 quickly led to his decision to improve his skill by moving to Paris in September 1858 to study sculpture. However, discouraged by the minimal earnings of sculpture, in April 1859 Rogers returned home to the United States where a few months later in September he found a position at the surveyor's office of Chicago. He unexpectedly experienced his first success as a sculptor in a Charity Bazaar. His celebrated first piece, "Checkers at the Farm," was soon followed by "The Slave Auction," which took him to New York to finally start a career in sculpture.
In 1863 Rogers officially determined his business model of "large sales and small profits." During the years of the Civil War, Rogers, a Unionist, produced statues on contemporary topics and attained household renown. As Rogers' career took off, his studio in New York soon became a public showroom. His fame spread nationally from frequent reviews in newspapers, magazine, and trade journals. Some of his most notable pieces and subjects were statues of Gen. Reynolds, Henry Ward Beecher, Abraham Lincoln, Edwin M. Stanton, and Gen. Grant.
John Rogers, Jr. married Harriet Moore Francis in 1865, and together they had seven children, six of whom survived to adulthood: John, Katherine Rebecca, Charles Francis, Derby, Alexander Parker, and David Francis. Throughout his career Rogers was able to make a comfortable living. However after his retirement in 1894 and over thirty years of work, interest in his miniature group sculptures lessened. He moved permanently to his summer home in New Canaan, where he died in 1904.
The Rogers family's genealogy dates as far back as to the 16th century. Originally located in England, men of the Rogers family began a tradition of careers in the ministry. In 1636 Reverend Nathaniel Rogers moved the family to America, where the family took root in the surrounding areas of Boston and carried on the occupational tradition of Puritan ministers and New England merchants, providing their descendents with a respected family name. Though John Rogers, Sr. was also a merchant, he did not experience the same success and wealth that his predecessors had. However, in 1827, at the age of 27 Rogers married a 22 year-old Sarah Ellen Derby, daughter of the Salem banker John Derby. Together they had 7 children and moved several times in their early life, finally settling down in Roxbury, Massachusetts. John Rogers, Sr. and Sarah Ellen Derby remained close to Rogers, Sr.'s brother Henry Bromfield Rogers, a member of the Municipal Council and a Water Commissioner of Boston. H. B. Rogers played a significant role in the early life and career of John Rogers, Jr. providing connections and financial support when needed. The Rogers family was close and corresponded frequently amongst siblings and parents.
Source: Wallace, David H. John Rogers: The People's Sculptor. Middletown: Wesleyan UP, 1967.